June 17, 2024
Corky McClerkinHenry Johnson

Talking with Chicago Musicians
Corky McClerkin
and Henry Johnson

by Mark Ruffin

Whether they should play electric jazz or acoustic jazz is a question that many musicians are grappling with these days. The answer for some is to straddle this musical fence, while it’s not an issue at all for many who easily choose one or the other. The way two Chicago veterans, pianist Corky McClerkin and guitarist Henry Johnson, have chosen to deal with this dilemma on their new recordings makes for an interesting case study.

McClerkin’s new disc, his third, is Island of Dreams, and Johnson’s sixth album is An Evening At Sea. The dichotomies in these albums are many, including the fact that this is the first album by Johnson that is not on a major label, while all of McClerkin’s releases have either been on his own imprint, or with the small Chicago company, Southport Records.

“All of the major record companies are signing the flavor of the month, and they all wanted me to do that smooth jazz stuff,” Johnson detailed with distain. “I don’t do that anymore.”

The keyboardist, on the other hand, feels that electric jazz, whether it’s called smooth, contemporary or even fusion, is part of his heritage, just like traditional jazz. Therefore the first seven tracks of Island of Dreams are decidedly smooth, while the rest is blowing straight ahead music.

“It’s hard for me to label what I am and what I do,” McClerikin explained. “Traditional jazz, hard-core jazz, contemporary jazz, smooth jazz, whatever, I’ve always had various people who like different parts of things I play. I wanted to bring a mixture to the sound of the cd.

“Besides, the concept of jazz has always been about continual growth,” McClerkin continued, “and the versatility of musicians and what we have bought from a historical standpoint must not be overlooked in contemporary jazz.”

Though it pains him to admit it now, Johnson was once a smooth jazz darling.

“And, I’ve spent the last four years or so trying to get rid of that tag,” Johnson retorted.

It’s the rampant commercialism of the modern music that has turned the guitarist off.

“I was in Dallas once, and I was listening to the smooth jazz station there, called the Oasis.” Johnson recalled. “One of my tunes was playing and they totally edited my solo out, taking the art totally out of my hands.

“When radio started making formula out of the music and started simplifying it to the point where it’s just a bunch of crap, I stopped playing. If you do anything contemporary with really progressive improvising, it won’t be played, or edited really badly.”

After a stellar period as a sideman to first-rate contemporary stars like Ramsey Lewis, Angela Bofill, Stanley Turrentine and others, Johnson signed with MCA Records in the mid-80’s and produced three albums for that multi-international music giant. In 93, he put out the first of two albums for Heads Up International, a company that specializes in smooth jazz.

Since he’s had a stylistic change of strings, sort of speak, Johnson has recorded with acoustic stars Norman Simmons, Kenny Drew Jr, and jazz singers Vanessa Rubin, Freddie Cole and the late Joe Williams. An Evening At Sea is his first album in six years and it 100% be-bop.

“I’m not one of those guys they talk about on smooth jazz radio anymore, and that’s cool with me ” Johnson said with a sense of pride. “The music right now is so terrible, it’s like a clone that’s been cloned over and over again, getting weaker with each cloning.”

Needless to say, McClerkin has a totally different view perched on top of his keyboard with one hand in the past and the other firmly in the future. He has not been spoiled with major label success and ample radio airplay.

Island of Dreams brims with optimism, adventurous contemporary rhythms and polished improvisational passages. Among the four producers listed are arranger Mike Logan, who is well known in smooth jazz in Chicago, and Curtis Prince, who is one of our towns hardest working acoustic jazz drummers in the Windy City..

The album features two of Chicago’s finest singers in Joan Collaso and Dee Alexander, both of whom, like McClerkin, also go both ways musically. While traditional local stars Sonny Seals and John Watson, saxophonist and trombonist respectively are also featured.

“I featured these performers because they are so important to the total jazz sound of Chicago,” McClerkin concluded. “We were all raised in the straight-ahead style, but to survive in this town, you have to evolve to deal with all forms of jazz music.

Johnson doesn’t feel that way at all. But, he also has a national name that he can take to other cities across JazzUSA

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